Fences (2016) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive references
Running Time: 138 min.
Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Mykelti Williamson, Russell Hornsby
Director: Denzel Washington
Screenplay: August Wilson
Review published January 2, 2017
Set in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, Troy Maxson (Washington, The Magnificent Seven) is a 53-year-old former negro league baseball star currently working as a sanitation worker, earning the money he hands over to his wife of eighteen years, Rose (Davis, Suicide Squad). Troy is out of shape, alcoholic, and not without his own character flaws (especially his pride and ego), but he is the king of his own castle in his house, which he likes to remind his wife and sons of often whenever they ask him to do anything he doesn't want to do. However, circumstances arise that prove to make living with Troy turn from sometimes difficult to practically intolerable.
Fences is based on the 1983 Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning play of the same name by August Wilson, the sixth and most revered of Wilson's ten plays from his "Pittsburgh Cycle", where he looks at an African-American family in each decade of the 20th century. Denzel Washington directs, under the late Wilson's stipulation that the screenplay he adapted of his own play be directed by an African-American. The film, while containing many universal themes anyone can relate to (fatherhood, marriage, and how the beliefs of the father are often passed to the sons), also has specific tie-ins to the African-American experience, especially in the ways that Troy's beliefs, as well as his righteousness toward the way he raises his family, is a reaction to the rules he feels had been unfairly imposed upon him since the day he was born.
Fences marks Washington's third film in which he has directed, after Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters, and it also marks his best effort to date, mostly driven on the strength of the source material, as well as the powerful performances from the very talented cast of actors. Washington had been given the screenplay nearly a decade prior, but decided he wanted to familiarize himself by actually performing the play live before making it into the film, resulting in an acclaimed 2010 revival that saw Washington and his co-star, Viola Davis, also take home Tony Awards for their performances.
And, really, it is those performances that turns a great play into a great movie, with Viola Davis in particularly completely and utterly enthralling as Rose Maxson, a woman who must confront the fact that she has spent eighteen years investing herself so fully into bettering a man who seems to self-destruct when left to his own devices. She knows that if Troy goes down, she goes down with him, not knowing what to do when he begins to make decisions that run counter to all she holds dear.
In some way, Fences is a character study of a man whose own flawed outlook on life, jaded by the barriers ('fences') put upon him due to his race and difficult upbringing, have caused him to espouse and enforce upon his own family in the realm in which he has some control. Troy, whose very name evokes the city in Homer's "Iliad" that itself had been surrounded by a great wall, thinks his actions are noble, wanting to impart life lessons to his sons on how to be a man in this dog-eat-dog world, but his actions also set up further barriers to their success, whether as an athlete in the case of youngest son Cory (Adepo, "The Leftovers") or as a musician in eldest Lyons' (Hornsby, The Breaks) case. He likes to control them through his own self-righteous monologues, but when Troy does something of a morally dubious nature, he relies on standard positions of either not being able to control his own nature, or that he is the breadwinner whose motives shouldn't be questioned by people who are living under his roof.
The multi-layered story isn't afraid to delve into spirituality to tie in its themes, with its frequent allusions to heaven, hell, God, the Devil, divine judgment, and Death itself. Troy is such a master of his own domain that he begins to also think that he can also stave death away in the course of building his physical fence to surround his yard, which he thinks will also knock the devil back over the fence, much like he would a dead-center fastball, not realizing that those demons already reside within him. For Rose, Troy's work on the fence is seen as something that will preserve things within, keeping Troy around and from, she hopes, going astray in their marriage. Rose has taken a backseat to her own desires to allow Troy to grow and flourish, while she keeps trying to provide the sunshine to allow him to take them both beyond their current existence as she holds on tightly. However, staying on the margins also puts her in a position where she might become marginalized, as Troy can be persuaded to do things by Rose, but when push comes to shove, Troy will do what he wants.
In addition to the common themes, Fences also benefits from showcasing characters often not found within narrative stories, often on the fringes of a society to which they are largely invisible, even though such people are seen every day (garbage men, housewives, etc.) Nevertheless, while the occupations may be different than most, the family dynamic remains relatable, especially in terms of the bonds that are strengthened, and sometimes broken, through a stern disciplinarian approach. Troy may be a garbage man while outside of the fence that surrounds his home, but within it, he's the 'king of the castle', and lets everyone who exists within this small dominion aware of it at every opportunity. This elevates the piece from domestic drama to that of the works of heroic ages, with kings, princes, and noblemen who come to power and also fall from grace, thanks to their own bravery and hubris.
Fences is a poignant drama that retains the power of the stage work while also offering very strong and moving performances to bring these characters to life in a close and intimate way. Like its titular metaphor, the things that are used to preserve can also be used to divide, while also showing that for someone in Troy's position, sometimes the grass isn't always greener on the other side of it -- a lesson he doesn't seem to learn until it's too late to come back from. But, most of all, through the suggestion that one is only as good as the options available to them, the most powerful of fences of all aren't the ones we encounter in life, but rather those ones that we've built for ourselves that end up cutting out those options before they might ever sprout on our side of the yard.
©2016 Vince Leo